Rev. John Gallagher is taking his defamation case against the Diocese of Palm Beach to the Florida Supreme Court.
Arguing that an appeals court erred when it in May threw out his lawsuit, Gallagher on Friday asked the state’s highest court to overturn that decision. If it does so, a Palm Beach County jury would be allowed to decide whether the diocese defamed Gallagher by publicly questioning his sanity after he accused it of trying to cover up sexual abuse by a visiting priest.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal threw out Gallagher’s suit, citing the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The doctrine prohibits secular courts from getting involved in religious matters.
In a 12-page petition, Gallagher’s attorneys argue that the Miami-based appellate court, which heard the case at the request of the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal, misconstrued Gallagher’s claims.
Gallagher’s lawsuit has nothing to do with church doctrine, attorneys Ted Babbitt and Philip Burlington wrote. Instead, they wrote, he is seeking damage for injuries he suffered when the diocese falsely branded him a liar “in need of serious professional help.”
Gallagher, a former pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, claims the diocese blasted him on social media and in a letter Bishop Gerald Barbarito ordered be read at all Masses in January 2016.
The attacks were part of the punishment he received for ignoring instructions not to tell authorities that the Rev. Jose Varkey Palimattom, a visiting priest, had shown pornographic pictures to a 14-year-old youth at the suburban West Palm Beach church in January 2015, Gallagher claims. After working with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to help prosecute Palimattom, Gallagher claims he was locked out of the rectory and the church.
In its decision, the appeals court ruled that “whether Father Gallagher was actually in need of professional help is beside the point.”
In response, Babbitt and Burlington wrote: “That is precisely the point in a defamation case! Florida recognizes that defamation by implication is actionable .. and a reasonable implication of those statements is that Father Gallagher has a mental defect or disease which, if false, is actionable,” they wrote.
They argue that the Florida Supreme Court should accept the case because other appellate court have not given religious leaders protection against First Amendment lawsuits.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser agreed that Gallagher’s claims would not pierce church doctrine. Her decision was overturned by the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling.